Out of the Suburbs and Into the Desert

I grew up in a little box of a house in an Indiana suburb.  There were houses on either side of us and one across the street.  As far as the eye could see was a flat landscape littered with driveways and asphalt.  So when I moved West after college, I was in awe of the mountains and deserts.  I still am: all this empty space and rugged beauty.  It never grows old.  Every year when May rolls around and the weather warms up, I feel compelled, like the great explorers of the West, John Muir and John Wesley Powell, to take a look around.

The month of May I call Desert Appreciation Month. The temperatures are still cool enough to make hiking pleasant–and all the wildflowers are in bloom. 

May, with its warmer weather, not only beckons people, but other creatures too. Yesterday, hiking the Wilson Creek Trail I came across a long, patterned bull snake gliding peacefully through the grasses.  The Wilson Creek Trail climbs the Owyhee Mountain front in Idaho.  When I saw the snake of course, I jumped back, startled.

Bull snakes look similar to rattlesnakes and I’ve come across enough rattlesnakes in my desert wanderings that I try not to repeat that experience.

A couple of years ago I was walking in sneakers and shorts along the side of a dirt road when I heard a distinct rattle sound warning me away.  I froze, aware of my exposed legs, and looked down to find a rattlesnake coiled not three feet from me under a sagebrush.  I softly stepped back thinking I really needed to wear boots and long pants hiking around in snake season.

trailhead

On the Wilson Creek hike I crossed several bends in the little ribbon of a stream known as Wilson Creek. 

Apparently, the snow melt coming off the peaks of the 8,000 foot Owyhee Mountains formed the headwaters.  Two hundred or so head of cattle drifted in and around the creek bed blocking my path.  I walked through them keenly aware of bawling and nervous cows worried about their calves.  Cows are generally docile animals but have been known to charge if they think their calves are being threatened.  It was difficult to ignore the damage done to little Wilson Creek by this big herd of cattle.  The banks of the stream were all caved in and the vegetation around stomped down, flattened, and covered with cow pies.  I wondered what this oasis in the high desert would look like minus cows—or at least with fewer cattle feeding from such a fragile stream.

Above me, on the hillside, I saw neat planted rows of crested wheat grass.  No doubt the Bureau of Land Management had tractors drill seeds into the soil, probably hoping to restore such a heavily grazed area.  It always makes me shake my head when I hear ranchers complain about the federal government infringing on their rights.  The government supports ranching in so many ways: including keeping grazing fees phenomenally low ($1.69 a month per cow/calf pair —this as opposed to approximately $25 a month to feed a cow/calf pair on private land).   They not only plant hearty grasses to ensure better pasturing for cattle herds, they also fence miles and miles of pasture—free of charge.

Fortunately, away from the stream bed I noticed plenty of undisturbed native wheat and rye grasses.  I watched their leaves blow gently in the breeze.

“Multiple Use” is a phrase, a paradigm for public lands today.  Multiple use was everywhere evident on the Wilson Creek Trail.  I saw hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders on the trail.

Off in the distance an RZR (a Razor, a crazy-fast, steep-climbing recreational vehicle) drove, dust billowing behind. Still, for all the uses made of the Owyhee Mountain Front that day, it was blissfully quiet the farther I hiked up into the mountains.  I didn’t see a street sign or hear a car honk.  I almost pinched my arm to remind myself I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t still living in a dreary Indiana suburb.  No, I was happily awake, enjoying the mountains and deserts of the American West.

 

Image Credits:  Diana Hooley on the Wilson Creek Trail, southwest Idaho

 

Snake River Canyon

There are certain places we visit so many times in our life—maybe a hill in a park or a bridge we cross every day to get to work—they become meaningful to us. The Snake River Canyon near my home is such a place for me.  I’ve hiked the canyon dozens, maybe hundreds of times over the years.  On today’s hike, I’m reminded how pretty the canyon is in the spring.  At its neck, I’m greeted by a vista of green, desert grasses lining the canyon walls.  I’m always amazed to see the canyon, brittle brown most of the year, turn Easter egg green for a brief week or two in the spring.

I remember the first time I really looked at the canyon and noticed how beautiful it was.

I was newly married and had just moved to a desert farm with my husband.  One morning we had a big fight, and I was so angry I took a walk back in the canyon just to cool off.

I barely saw where I was going, my eyes were so blurred with tears. But slowly I became aware of how lovely and quiet the trail was.  Before long, my fury was all gone, lost in the peaceful canyon wilderness.

The walls of the Snake River Canyon were shaped by the flooding of ancient Lake Idaho and Lake Bonneville thousands of years ago.  Now the Snake River runs along the bottom. I look to my right, hearing the river as it winds its way down through the canyon floor.  I’m not able to see the river though, the Russian olive trees along the bank are too dense.  Several years ago on one of my canyon hikes with our family dog, Lindsey, we walked by a particularly dark, deep stand of Russian olive trees.  Lindsey peered into the woods and suddenly went berserk, barking wildly.

“What is it girl?  What’s wrong?” I asked her, trying unsuccessfully to calm her down.

It wasn’t until she abruptly backed away from the trees and started mewling piteously, that I became afraid myself.

My mind flashed on a book I’d recently read, a Stephen King horror thriller, The Tommyknockers I think, about a dog who’d dug up something in the woods: an evil, alien, space object.  I didn’t think there was anything from outer space in that Russian olive thicket, but there might be a wild animal on the other side, drinking from the river.  Cougars were not unheard of back in the canyon.  I called Lindsey and we quickly made tracks back out of the canyon.

As peaceful as the canyon is most of the time, this was not my only scare, hiking in it.  One time I decided to climb up the canyon wall, about 450 feet, to get a view of the valley below.  Half way up, I bent over to look at a black sliver of obsidian laying in the dirt.  I didn’t want to miss finding a possible arrow head.  Then I heard the unmistakable “ping” of a bullet hitting rock not too far from me.  My head snapped around to search behind and below me.  Who was shooting at the rim rock?   I couldn’t see anyone down near the river.

Maybe ten seconds later I heard another ping of a bullet, this one sending rock flying above me. Were they shooting at me?

I didn’t stay around to find out, but started skidding down the side of the canyon wall as fast as I could, stumbling over sagebrush and basalt rocks as I went. I never found out who the shooter was, but after that, I always made sure I wore a bright cap on my head when I hiked in the canyon.

Today, as is my habit, I walk until I come to the big boulder settled among some grease wood at the base of the canyon.  Maybe it’s a little obsessive-compulsive of me, but I lightly tap the boulder’s rounded, pebbled surface, and then pivot to head back the way I came. I guess the boulder’s a touchstone of sorts, a reference point for my many walks in this scenic, wild canyon.

Image credit:  Snake River Canyon